The New Heroes

You may have seen the recent documentary The New Heroes. If not, I recommend that you check your local PBS listings. There are four episodes each with the stories of three different social entrepreneurs. The documentary is funded in large part by The Skoll Foundation. This is one of the philanthropic endeavors of Jeff Skoll of eBay fame (here is a Times article with some additional information regarding Skoll’s activities).

The episode I watched introduced me to Kailash Satyarthi . Once an electrical engineer, he now dedicates his life to “…helping the millions of children in India who are forced into slavery by powerful and corrupt business- and land-owners. His original idea was daring and dangerous. He decided to mount raids on factories — factories frequently manned by armed guards — where children and often entire families were held captive as bonded workers.” His projects include: Global March Against Child Labor, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS) and Rugmark.

Then there is Mimi Silbert who founded Delancey Street Foundation. Her vision was to “develop a new model to turn around the lives of substance abusers, former felons, and others who have hit bottom by empowering the people with the problems to become their own solution.” Delancey Street residents spend an average of four years (two minimum) gaining an “academic education, three marketable skills, accountability and responsibility, dignity, and integrity.” Over the past thirty years they have “graduated over 14,000 people from America’s underclass into society as successful taxpaying citizens leading decent legitimate and productive lives.” All of this, mind you, with “no government funding, and at no charge to the clients“.

The mission of the Delancey Street Foundation is to provide a structured educational and living environment in which men and women, most of whom are ex-felons and substance abusers, can learn the skills they need to rebuild their lives. The residents of Delancey live and work together, pooling all of their income earned through a variety of business schools. Using the principle of “each one, teach one”, the residents take responsibility for each other’s welfare and hold each other accountable for achieving the highest possible standards in everything they do. There is no professional staff since the residents teach each other. A core principle is that people learn best by doing, and so everyone is active, learning job skills, acquiring an education, and practicing new ways of living.

The third individual I was introduced to in this episode was Moses Zulu. Moses’ project is Development Aid from People to People in Zambia (Children’s Town) a “school project designed to address the plight of street children and other vulnerable children in giving them a chance to get off the streets, to get an education and turn their lives around into productive citizens.

The skills training program [at Children’s Town] is meant to establish a connection between classroom theory and real life. It aims to equip the children with the practical knowledge that will enable them to earn an income and become independent. The skills training is divided into 5 stages that prepare the children for more serious vocational training. In the end the children receive a Trade Tested Certificate. The practical training is conducted in the Children’s Town’s garden, farm, animal keeping units and shop.

These are three of the twelve social entrepreneurs introduced in this documentary, there are many more having an impact in many different areas of this globe. I found the presentation in this documentary both heartwarming and challenging. Heartwarming in that efforts are having an impact and challenging in that this entrepreneurial approach to addressing social ills seems the exception not the rule. I suspect this challenge is one that will not likely go away simply by cracking open the check book.